Distributed October 1998
Copyright ©1998 by E. Gordon Gee
Impossible as it would have seemed had I thought about it then, our paths crossed many years later. I became president of Ohio State University in 1990; Ohio Sen. John Glenn became a close personal friend and a dependable ally in advancing the cause of higher education.
As Senator Glenn returns to space after 36 years, perspectives have changed. I was among those invited to observe the fatal Challenger launch, so the element of danger in space travel is forever fixed in my mind, mingled with excitement and pride. But all these feelings have been muted by decades of achievements that now make shuttle flights seem routine. A robot on Mars, a full topographical map of Venus, images from the Hubble telescope, orbital images of the moons of Jupiter - undergraduates routinely use fresh data from these NASA missions in our classrooms and laboratories. Senator Glenn himself is not so much a pioneer as a research subject now, whose data will continue to be studied long after he returns.
This time around, I am struck by how far we have come and, as president of a major research university, by how we got here. Thirty-five years ago, determined not just to keep the pace but to set the pace, we embarked on a renaissance of education, training and research. Our unprecedented national investment in higher education, particularly in science and engineering, brought advances across an unimaginably wide frontier: exotic materials, fiber optics, ever more efficient semiconductors, software, medical diagnostic techniques, recombinant DNA, communication devices that can exchange information with spacecraft at the very edge of our solar system.
We had no way of knowing then where our investment in basic research would lead us, but we believed in progress and were committed to the journey. We worked with enthusiasm and earnestness, convinced that what we were doing would move us all ahead. Now we live in a jaded world where breathtaking technology is commonplace. Our briefcases hold more computing power than Senator Glenn's original spaceship. We have cell phones that can communicate almost anywhere on earth. Our physicians and surgeons offer us therapies that were the stuff of science fiction barely a decade ago. Even our children's toys incorporate lasers, sophisticated software and powerful microprocessors. We use ATMs and CDs every day, but we do not always know or remember the basic research and incremental breakthroughs that made them possible.
Our embrace of technology and a faster pace of living has brought with it a certain cynicism about life in our nation. The cynic sees contemporary social problems and concludes that the more things change, the more they stay the same, that technological progress is a veneer covering chronic, unaddressed issues. Cynicism is double danger. It looks back on history with an instinctive sourness, and it looks forward without hope or expectation. Cynicism robs us of the encouragement we should find in our achievements and of the vision we need to continue making progress.
I believe we have done more than invent mere gadgets over the decades. We participate in a society that is far more diverse and more inclusive than it was in the 1960s. We are healthier and longer-lived, with access to an astonishing array of options for medical diagnosis and treatment. Higher education, surely the greatest key to personal and social advancement in the twenty-first century, is open to a far greater cross-section of America than at any time in our past.
Whether we would have come so far so fast had our space program been smaller and less ambitious, I cannot say. But we would not have gotten where we are now without the forward-looking vision, entrepreneurial drive and pioneering spirit that were so palpable back then. In an age when true wonder has become rare, the prospect of a 77-year-old astronaut returning eagerly to space reminds us that despite how far we have come, our eyes must remain on a more distant prize so that our progressive spirit may continue to move us forward.######